Catania Fish Market
Slow Food Sicily
Catherine Gazzoli - CEO of Slow Food UK and Board Director of Slow Food International - was recently in Marzara del Vallo on the Southwest coast of Sicily attending the Slow Food International directors meeting and conference ‘Slow, Sea, Land ’ to promote small-scale artisan Sicilian producers. She is a habitué of this mysterious and wonderful island and shared with me her experiences and tips right down to the last bite.
I started by asking Catherine about the aims of the Slow Food movement. “Slow Food is a global, grassroots movement that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment. A not-for-profit, member-supported association, its philosophy is best summed up in three words: good, clean and fair. Slow Food believes that the food we eat should be fresh, taste good and be healthy; that it should be produced in a clean way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or people’s health, and that small scale producers should receive fair compensation for their work”
For Catherine, looking to Sicily, the island’s geography and diverse history contribute to the culinary melting pot: “Sicily is an island that has Moorish, Spanish and Roman origins and history. When you ask a person from Sicily where they are from, they are often to respond with ‘Sicilian’ rather than ‘Italian’. In culinary terms that means that Sicilian cuisine and travelling in Sicily is quite unique. The Moorish influence is especially visible in the towns of Trapani, Marsala, and Mazara del Vallo and couscous of pesce is a typical dish from this Southeast coast of Sicily. Sicily of course has a deep history of dishes showcasing the delicious abundance from the sea surrounding the island.”
Catherine explained the importance of family eating in Sicily: “Slow Food education projects differ from most food education as they take into consideration all the different dimensions of food, such as culture and conviviality. Family could not be more important to the Slow Food movement, and as such, the majority of the education programmes are centred on this. In Sicily, the family is very important as well and families do typically take the time to eat together more so in Southern Italy and especially in Sicily.”
Things have changed though. “Rates of obesity are going way up in Sicily. It is one of the reasons Slow Food recently executed the festival and conference ‘Slow, Sea, Land’ in the Sicilian port city of Mazara del Vallo. The event brought small-scale fishermen and producers together and displayed their delicious foodstuffs to the public. Food is glue in terms of the social cohesiveness factor it gives and sitting around the table together to eat a home-cooked meal with love is good for children as much as parents alike. It’s an over-romanticised notion that in Sicily there is still the idea that women are at the heart of this as stay-at-home-mums. With the Italian and Sicilian economy in challenging times, more and more Sicilian families are composed of two working parents and grandparents play a very big role in taking care of their grandchildren and feeding the family.”
“What is very impressive about Slow Food in Sicily is the growth of the Ark of Taste and ‘Presidia’ programme which is a global initiative promoting special, endangered and forgotten foods. The Forgotten Food programme aim is to catalogue, describe and draw public attention to exceptional food and ‘forgotten flavours’ from around the world which are in danger of disappearing due to current food production and distribution systems. Slow Food is committed to protecting traditional and sustainable quality foods, defending the biodiversity of cultivated and wild varieties as well as cultivation and processing methods. Through maintaining the diversity of regional food and agricultural traditions, the wisdom of local communities can be maintained to protect the ecosystems that surround them and offer sustainable prospects for the future. In Sicily there are twenty-seven classified ingredients we are saving from everything to a special black bee that produces a very flavourful honey from the Aeolian Island Filicudi in northwest Sicily to the subtly delicious almonds of the ancient town of Noto in southeast Sicily.”
I wondered what visitors could learn from Sicily’s Slow Food principles. Catherine: “We often to refer to it as Slow Travel but exploring and travelling following the principles of the Slow Food movement can only be positive for the destination one is visiting. It means taking the time to learn where local food markets are, understanding and being interested by heritage foods of that area and its culinary customs. The first thing I do when travelling is go to the farmers market which gives you a real feel for a country's culture.
I cannot think of a better place to visit than the food markets in Palermo’s old quarter of Kalsa. The fresh fish market in Catania is also absolutely a special experience and I have eaten many raw crustaceans from the fish stalls there wrapped in newspaper. Not for the faint hearted!”
I couldn’t finish without asking Catherine for her top Sicilian Slow Food recommendation “My absolute favourite dish is pasta con ricci (sea urchins) which can be had at Trattoria Piccolo Napoli of my friend Giuseppe Corona in Palermo, not too far from the port where the ferries take you to the Aeolian Islands. Giuseppe gets his sea urchins from divers that carefully hand-dive for the sea urchins respecting the fishing laws that are too often ignored by mainstream companies. I finish lunch with cassata, which is the Sicilian dessert of ricotta and candied fruits. It is a real sensation to experience. Indeed, Piccolo Napoli is the first place I head to when reaching Palermo. It’s a family run establishment and Giuseppe’s mamma is always looking over everything from her perch behind the counter."
- Trattoria Piccolo Napoli (Via Cusimano 1, Palermo 091-32-0431)
- To learn more about Slow Food, please go to slowfood.org.uk or come visit us at Slow Food’s Taste Space at 6 Neals Yard, Covent Garden, London. There are often exchange trips with Slow Food groups in Italy and other parts of the world where Slow Foodies can be found.
- If you happen to be in Turin in October, please join Slow Food at Salone del Gusto one of the world’s most special and largest artisan food festivals showcasing Slow Food producers salonedelgusto.it
- To learn more about the sustainable artisan food and fish conference ‘Slow, Sea, Land’ and Slow Food’s work in promoting sustainability fishing, please visit: slowsealand.it and slowfish.it
Fran Harris (with image courtesy of furibond's photo stream)